It was a sunny afternoon in Hanoi last week and I was exploring the Old Quarter & Hoan Kiem Lake.
After being approached by a Vietnamese businessman who was in the shoe cleaning & repair industry I agreed on his services. He looked desperate & my shoes were dirty, so we agreed on 50,000 VND ($2) for both a clean & repair. This was his first price and I really wasnt in the mood for bartering.
The Vulnerable Foreigner
Whilst my shoes were being cleaned, two Vietnamese men approached me and started asking me the usual questions. As my shoes were off, and I was in temporary thongs (flip flops) I had no choice but to entertain their questions. After a brief chat the questions were more serious “Are you travelling with friends?”, “Do you have a girlfriend?”. They offered me cigarettes (for which I refused, I did not want to feel indebt to these guys), and then mentioned they have a friend who wants to learn english and said I would be the perfect teacher. Would I be able to meet her tonight?
At this point the shoe cleaner started talking in Vietnamese to the two gentleman, and I started to get paranoid and really just wanted to walk away but was in a difficult position as my shoes were off. The two men now mentioned that wanted to take me to a local Bia Hoi (local bar) for beers.
Ok, something was up and I needed to get away from these guys.
The shoe cleaner pointed to the holes in my shoes and said $1 to fix. Yep, it was the classic SE Asia price deception, pretend we didnt agree on the price initially and play the ‘dont understand english card’. I didnt care, but I wasnt going to pay him more money so I threw him $2 and walked away with sparkling, holey shoes.
Here were my thoughts:
- I was cornered in a situation that I couldnt leave easily (the shoe cleaner had my shoes!)
- I was being asked strange questions about my solo backpacking style and whether I wanted to meet someone to teach them English
- I was offered cigarettes, classic reciprocal relationship psychology
- The two groups of people (the two men & the shoe cleaner) were talking to each other in Vietnamese
My South East Asian Dilemma
Were these guys, friendly local Vietnamese that wanted to drink some beers with a foreigner? (this sounds like the best way to kill an afternoon). Or was I going to end up in an ice bath with missing kidneys, used on some anti solo backpacking expose on an Australian a current affair show?
About 30 minutes after, a young Vietnamese girl approached me and was asking me the basic questions. She was shy but still friendly, as if she was genuinely interested about me & Australia – but was she trying to scam me? I was paranoid from the last encounter that I just said goodbye and walked off.
How do I know who is trying to scam me/steal my liver compared to the locals that just want to have beer with me?
I Knew What To Expect
Dont get me wrong, I have been to SE Asia before and I am aware of the deception, bartering, & dodginess of it all. But I am not sure if I am just more paranoid in my mid-twenties or there is a better way to assess a friend from a scammer?
I have spent some time in The Philippines and most of the people I became friends with were locals (I still communicate with them on Facebook). This was a much better experience than partying with foreigners in my opinion. Can I not do that in Vietnam and am I going to have to accept drinking beers with Australians? (Nooooooooooo!!!).
UPDATE: 19th December
The day after this post was published my phone was slipped out my pocket on the streets of Hanoi. Three days later my iPod was taken from my bungalow in the countryside village of Mai Chau.